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  • Politicizing Obscenity
  • Joan Hawkins (bio)

Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, a performance by Karen Finley, Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL, February 18, 2017.

First performed Off-Broadway at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York during the summer of 2016, prior to its staging at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater for a single performance, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery takes American political fantasy as its point of departure. The production was later developed for a weeklong run at La MaMa in May 2017 where it was retitled The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. Comprised of a triptych of performances in which Finley takes on the personas of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and a mythical unicorn, the performance provides a scathing response to the recent U.S. presidential campaign and captures the obscenity of American politics during the rise of the Trump regime. As an artist previously charged with obscenity as part of the NEA Four in the early 1990s, Finley’s performance echoes, both literally and figuratively, the smear campaign that took the mainstream media by storm.

As the first of the three pieces, Unicorn begins on a comic, slightly absurdist note as Finley comes onstage in multicolored drapery, festooned with sequins, gewgaws, and a gold-painted horn on her head. The stage is washed entirely in blue, violet, and pink and is reminiscent of a thrift store: dresses are strewn over a large mirror, tchotchkes surround the stage, small tables are draped with gaudy blue and pink cloth, and a dressmaker’s dummy is covered in cards and notes. Dancing to the Talking Heads’s “Take Me to the River,” Finley flashes a bright, sardonic grin as she repeatedly thanks the audience for coming. In a distorted, high-pitched voice, she praises the imaginary figure of the unicorn, who at first seems to appear as the more progressive candidate we’ve all been waiting for.

Outside of the performance, Finley has suggested that the unicorn might represent the fervor surrounding Bernie Sanders, however, that critique has less to do with Sanders himself than with the mythos created around him. “Where were [End Page 49] you, unicorn, for those in the church in Charleston? Where were you, unicorn, as Trayvon Martin opened the rainbow Skittles?” As is characteristic of her earlier work, her shifts from first to third person and changes in tone and language are abrupt, resulting in comic assaults on the audience as she screeches platitudes and criticisms without concrete narrative meaning: “I won’t sit still for you to appear with magic,” she hisses. “There is no unicorn for me. There is no unicorn for you.” In part one, Finley dispels the potential of any transcendence from reality.

In the second piece, Gratitude, Finley gets more overtly political. Donning a blonde wig and a white pantsuit, her look is suggestive of an embattled Hillary Clinton. Here and throughout the show, costume changes take place in front of the audience as she gathers up the various pieces from around the stage, showing the process of her transformation from one persona to another. She frequently moves in and out of character, sometimes speaking in first person as Hillary, sometimes speaking as herself about Hillary. While she defends her from sexist attacks, she also critiques some of her policies. “I am so grateful. Gratitude is my attitude,” she remarks.

Initially, Hillary seems to be speaking to her supporters, but at other moments, she speaks to (and as) her husband, Bill Clinton. The difficulty of separating one voice from another becomes a major motif of the piece: Hillary cannot dissociate herself from Bill, his reputation, or his body. “Who’s wearing the blue dress now?” she asks throughout Gratitude. The dress, Monica Lewinsky’s infamous semen-stained outfit, makes an appearance on stage as the only physical manifestation of the “other woman” who continues to haunt Hillary’s political image. Before the end of the piece, the dress becomes fused atop her white pantsuit, suggesting the closeness of that earlier scandal.

At the climax, Finley clutches an object to her chest that spurts creamy goo trickle down her cleavage. This is a comical but deeply uncomfortable moment: like Lewinsky, Hillary becomes the semen-smeared woman—a reference to...


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